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Russia and America: The Struggle for Europe

Russia and America: The Struggle for Europe

by Reuben Steff

Click to enlarge

Bush greeting troops on the eve of the First Gulf War (Image: US Govt)

A New Era; a New Order

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the successful ousting of Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, US President George Bush Sr. made a remarkable speech. He stated that a New World Order was emerging: "A world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

Bush’s speech was as ambitious as it was sincere. But he was mistaken. His speech was predicated upon the assumption that America and its allies were standing at the end of history and would collectively face any new threat. Yet history tells us that victorious coalition’s never last as circumstances change, national interests reassert themselves and defeated enemies refuse to play their part. No order is permanent.

With this in mind an important diplomatic meeting took place in Poland last week as 14 Central and East European leaders met for the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. The presence of three of these leaders, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Angela Merkel of Germany and Donald Tusk of Poland was highly significant. Their changing relationships and the decisions they make in the next few years could transform the European order.

This is particularly important as we witness a new strategic confrontation breaking out between the global hegemon, the United States of America and the successor-state to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation.

At the anniversary Vladimir Putin was continuing to reassert Russia on the global stage and trying to shape perceptions of modern Russia. Putin’s ability to reassert Russia has been possible due to high oil prices, the consolidation of control under Putin and the centralisation of key strategic sectors. Most importantly American military power has become bogged down in the Middle East opening up a ‘window of opportunity’ for Russia to act.

During a conference in Munich in 2007 Putin chose his moment to denounce American unipolarity and begin the geopolitical resurgence of Russia. He had set the scene for this as far back as 2000 when he signalled he was open to conciliation with the United States but was preparing for confrontation if that failed.

Russia’s resurgence has been designed to show the states of the former Soviet Union and parts of Europe that the balance of power has changed in the region and that Russia cannot be ignored on security matters. It has achieved this by using Russia’s massive energy resources to play energy politics and through the use of military power, most notably during its 2008 invasion of the pro-US state of Georgia.

Ultimately, these efforts have been designed to force America to agree to a ‘Grand Bargain’ where Russia would be recognised as a ‘Great Power’ with an attendant ‘sphere of influence’ stretching across the former Soviet Union. In this bargain Georgia and Ukraine’s bids for NATO membership would be thrown out and missile defence installations not deployed in Poland. In exchange Russia would help in forcing Iran to come to the negotiating table and acquiesce to American global hegemony.

Russia’s resurgence is not only a symptom of the changing balance power around its periphery but a response to a series of American moves: the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders; the ‘colour’ revolutions in the former Soviet Union; Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence; the American abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the subsequent decision to deploy missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic which will have a ‘kinematic’ capability to intercept Russian missiles.

Most strikingly, Russia fears that the missile defence system is a ‘Trojan horse’ through which America will eventually weaponise space. Furthermore, America has already shown its ability to use missile defence systems in an offensive manner.

In-line with these efforts the American Department of Defence released an important document in 2000 called ‘Joint Vision 2020’ whereby it embraced the doctrine of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’. This is to ensure the continued domination by American military forces over all domains of the earth – its oceans, land areas, airspace, cyberspace and outer space. This married to the policy of dissuasion which calls for American power to be sufficient to ‘dissuade’ any nation, or alliance of nations, from challenging its global dominance.

Russia believes the above to be part of a concerted effort to strategically cripple it and ensure a unipolar world order. In response Russia has said it will have to deploy its own orbital weapons in space, is developing new missiles capable of evading missile defences and will target parts of Europe with nuclear missiles if America goes through with its plans.

So far the Obama administration has been unwilling to enter into a deal with Putin. In response Putin is turning his attention to Europe, seeing an opportunity to change the political configuration of the region.

With America distracted the rest of Europe – particularly Poland – is worried by the deepening relationship between Russia and Germany, who appear to be creating an economic and political partnership.

Drifting Apart: America and Germany

In recent years Germany and Russia have been growing closer. Initially this was put down to ‘personalities’ - that former German Premier Gerhard Schroeder’s warm relationship with Putin was due to their ‘common chemistry’ and that his decision to keep Germany out of the US-led invasion of Iraq was a symptom of his centre-left tendencies.

With the election of the more conservative Angela Merkel in 2005 it was expected that Germany would revert to a pro-US stance and might even begin to distance itself from Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Yet Merkel’s entrance upon the world stage has not resulted in a rehabilitation of the American-German relationship. Relations continue to sour as Merkel rejects US requests to increase Germany’s troop levels in Afghanistan and has significant differences over how to combat the world’s current economic problems.

All of this is politically uncomfortable for Obama since one of the central planks of his presidential campaign was that he would repair European relations that suffered during the Bush administration.

But there are other reasons for the continued drift.

During the Cold War Germany was the only European state to be split between the two superpower alliances: the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. During this time both East and West Germany were almost entirely beholden to their superpower patrons and unable to have independent foreign or military policies.

With the end of the Cold War Germany has slowly been finding its feat and is now the fourth largest global economy and the world’s leading exporter. Sitting at the heart of Europe and acting as its economic and industrial superpower Germany expects to be able to make its own foreign policy decisions and enter into strategic relationships independent of Washington’s interests.

As such it is not prepared to stand on the front lines of a new Cold War between Russia and America. After all, it was expected that the first shots of WWIII would be fired over Berlin - so why would it choose to put itself in that position once again?

Instead, Russian-German relations are improving as the process of ‘interconnecting’ their economies gathers pace.

Russia and Germany’s Strategic Partnership

The two European powerhouses are engaging in a sweeping series of new economic projects, strategic sectors are beginning ‘structural integration’ and Russian companies prepare to buy up major German companies. They have also agreed to jointly take over GM’s European empire while technology transfers will upgrade Russia’s massive railroad network. Energy co-operation is also expanding as Germany buys up Russian gas fields and a new major pipeline will take gas from Russia directly to Germany.

These deals are evidence of a burgeoning relationship between Moscow and Berlin which is resulting in a new political alignment.

For a start, Germany offered almost no criticism of Russia during and after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and tried to minimise NATO’s reaction. It has been the most vehement opponent of Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO and remained cool to the idea of missile defence. It has even gone so far to veto a plan for a European energy market which could reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

Click to enlarge

Merkel and Medvedev at the 34th G8 Summit

Merkel and Medvedev have also met three times already over the past year. Notably, each meeting has taken place after their individual meetings with Barack Obama which suggests they are comparing notes and aligning strategies.

Although makes sense for Germany to remain in NATO it does not make economic or geopolitical sense for it to be part of an effort to re-contain Russia. Problematically that is exactly the role NATO is now being asked to play. If these two goals become mutually incompatible Germany will have to make a choice – one of which could tear NATO apart.

Unsurprisingly, Poland and other parts of Europe are watching the deepening level of German-Russian co-operation with suspicion. There is good reason for this: the last time these two powers aligned in 1939 they tore Poland apart and kicked off WWII.

Poland’s Historic Fear

Hitler’s invasion was met a few days later when the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East, fulfilling its side of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Not only did Poland see this as a betrayal by the Soviet Union but it was forced to live under Communist rule for the next 50 years.

With the end of the Cold War Poland emerged independent and democratic. For its security it opted to enmesh itself in the NATO alliance while following an anti-Russian foreign policy.

In light of the inability of NATO to come to Georgia’s aid during the 2008 war, and with Russian-German co-operation increasing Poland has reassessed its position and is unsure whether being part of NATO will guarantee its security in the long term.

As such its leaders have showed a keen willingness to see the US deploy parts of its controversial missile defence system on its soil. It is no coincidence that a deal was signed just one week after the Russian invasion of Georgia. As Polish President Donald Tusk would state: "the events in the Caucasus show clearly that such security guarantees are indispensable."

Poland believes that US interceptors in Poland will signal a concrete security commitment from the US. Russia aggressively rejects this, calling it ‘a step back’ to the Cold war and that for America it is another opportunity “ expand its military presence across the world...”

Although Obama says he is still committed to the idea of basing interceptors in Poland he has been noticeably cooler on the idea than Bush. He stated during his presidential bid that he would “... cut unproven missile defence systems” and has initiated a review of the plans. Furthermore, pro-missile defence lobbyists are openly declaring the plan to base installations in Central Europe to be dead in the water.

In light of concerns about Germany’s commitment to their defence and NATO’s ability to stand up to Russia, a group of 22 former leaders from Central and Eastern European states recently wrote a letter to Obama imploring him not to abandon them.

They stated that 'storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon' and that 'Central and Eastern Europe is at a political crossroads and today there is a growing sense of nervousness in the region.' This has been heightened since the 'Atlantic alliance stood by' as Russia 'violated the... territorial integrity of a country that was a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace and the Euroatlantic Partnership Council' during its invasion of Georgia.’

The letter specifically referred to the U.S. plans to build ballistic missile defence (BMD) installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, stating that cancelling the program “can undermine the credibility of the United States across the whole region.”

With this in mind Poland had to rethink its approach to Russia. Quite simply, Poland is coming under enormous pressure – it does not want to proceed with an anti-Russian foreign policy if it is about to be abandoned by the United States.

Donald Tusk called the anniversary last week an opportunity for Warsaw and Moscow to repair their relationship. In response to Tusk’s outreach Putin reciprocated stating that the Soviet Unions’ oppression of Poland during the Cold War was ‘warped’ by Stalin’s totalitarianism (HP) and that the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression treaty that came just a few days before Hitler invaded Poland was ‘immoral’. He also struck a conciliatory note on the 1940 massacre by Soviet secret police of Polish military officers and intellectuals in Russia's Katyn forest.

Finally, he stated that as a result of their shared suffering during WWII they should engage in common grief and forgiveness. He also noted that the reversal of former hostile relationships between European powers, like Russia and Germany, has allowed the formation of what he called ‘Greater Europe’, signalling that he is open to such a change in Russian-Polish relations.

Russians Perceptions and American Dominance

Putin’s audience was also the world. He does not want Russia to be seen as a state intent upon territorial expansion and global conquest. This happened at the dawn of the Cold War and helped America build an international coalition hostile to Moscow in order to ‘contain’ it.

If anything American foreign policy over the past 9 years has done most of the work for Putin already. George W. Bush embraced many of the central tenets of a group known as the ‘neoconservatives’ – many of whom came to power with his administration.

They argued that not only was American pre-eminence good for the world but that it should use its power to promote – with force if necessary – American values around the world. Some even spoke of the need for America to cultivate an empire and act as a ‘benevolent global hegemon’.

In 1997 the neoconservatives created a think-tank called ‘The Project for a New American Century’ (PNAC) where they argued that the 21st century could be shaped by America if it embraced a ‘Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity’.

To them America’s unrivalled position of power was a tool to be used and should not need to restrained by multilateral institutions and treaties.

The neoconservatives believed that military power was transformative. In a famous exchange one top Bush administration official told Ron Suskind that he lived: ''in what we call the reality-based community” and that ''That's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality... We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

One of their primary goals was to force regime change upon states like Iraq and initiate democratic transformations. Some prominent neoconservatives like Michael Leeden openly called themselves ‘democratic revolutionaries’.

In 2002 the Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy of the United States drew from the Neocon playbook, stating that there was “a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” This document also enunciated for the first time a radical doctrine of pre-emptive or preventive war whereby America would not wait for threats to materialise but would strike them first.

Seizing upon the call for moral clarity, Bush declared in his 2002 state of the union address that nations like Iraq, Iran and North Korea constituted an ‘axis of evil’ that threatened the peace of the world. This led to the invasion of Iraq, which in Bush’s words was “a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."

This hubris and aggressiveness angered much of the world, while the invasion of Iraq resulted in the biggest anti-war protests in history. As a consequence global public opinion polls show that anti-Americanism is at an all time high. Barack Obama has thus sought to address this by declaring that reason and pragmatism, rather than ideology, will dictate his foreign policy.

Despite this he has called for America to maintain its global dominance and announced the largest military budget in world history. Furthermore his foreign policy is almost entirely consistent with the foreign policies of his predecessor, suggesting that there is little substance behind his mantra of ‘change’.

A Dangerous Game of Brinkmanship

Although the current order is not about to collapse tectonic shifts are taking place under the surface. Russia has re-emerged as a global power and is not happy with the status-quo. It has made this clear and is now seeking to roll back the spread of American influence across East and Central Europe.

Furthermore Germany is once again united and strong and is forging a new partnership with Russia. We should remember that the leaders in power in Germany today did not choose to be a part of the NATO alliance – they inherited it and the circumstances that exist today are far different than those that existed when it was born.

In the long term if Germany’s slow drift away from America continues it could tear apart the most successful military coalition in history – NATO. This would result in a historic power shift in Europe.

Washington cannot be oblivious to all this but it is used to a compliant Germany that falls in line with U.S. interests, not one that forges its own foreign policy independent of Washington.

Although tearing NATO apart could be considered a massive victory for Russia it may not be a necessary one. A few years ago Putin called for a continent-wide European security system that would include Russia. At the time his statement passed with little comment from the West. But with Russian power resurging he again echoed his call in Poland last week, insisting that the legacy of World War II served as an example of the importance of including Moscow. Furthermore Putin has also stated that he is willing to co-operate with America on its missile defence shield and proposed for an agreement to ban weapons in space. So far the Americans have rejected these advances

Obama’s inability or unwillingness to engage the Russians may be political rather than pragmatic. He may feel constrained by internal forces or have some ‘grand plan’ the rest of us are not privy to. But Obama’s almost wholesale embrace of Bush’s foreign policy displays a curious amount of faith in decisions that many now consider to be some of the worst in history.

This belies the notion that he is an ‘agent of change’ and is extremely worrying for those of us who expected him to chart a new course away from global militarism and power politics.

A dangerous game of brinkmanship is unfolding. Eventually Obama will be forced to respond and if he chooses to play by the neoconservative playbook we can expect another escalation in the emerging confrontation between Russia and America.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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